WAIL! | The CBZ Journal | March 2005


Who's Hosin' Who?
Guest Editorial by Dan Hanley

Poem of the Month
By Tom Smario

Million Dollar Heist
By J.D. Vena

Flynn Outfoxes the Feds
By Robert Carson

Divorced but not Forgotten
By Ron Lipton

A Different Kind of Fight Night
By Ted Kluck

Touching Gloves With...
"Irish" Gil King

By Dan Hanley

A Look Back: Larry Boardman
By Dan Cuoco

The Sweet Science
Reviewed by Katherine Dunn

Cinderella Man [PDF]
By Michael DeLisa

The Good Professor [PDF]
By Don Cogswell

Flashback to the 2004 Hall of
Fame Inductions

Pictorial by Dan Hanley

Million Dollar Heist

by J.D. Vena

I've never been much of a film critic.
In fact, I've often been accused of overrating movies. But I'd be overrating Clint Eastwood's latest film, Million Dollar Baby, if I told you it should have been considered for an Oscar. How it stole America's heart is almost as incredible as how it stole several Oscars, including Best Picture. In fact, this movie -- which some are hailing as the undisputed king of all boxing movies -- wasn't in any way more credible than Undisputed.

Let me start by saying that it kills me to write this. Anyone who knows me is well aware that I'm a huge Eastwood fan. Unforgiven is my all-time favorite movie and one of the first DVDs I purchased. I appreciate Unforgiven for its realism, its story, and its acting. David Webb Peoples, Unforgiven's writer, did a tremendous job of portraying a gun fighter and adding the character's conscience to the story. He had researched the history of the most notorious gun fighters and created a completely authentic tale, something more believable than your typical western.

Million Dollar Baby was the antithesis of Unforgiven. Its poor portrayal of the Sweet Science is what jeopardizes the story, which is why many who are familiar with boxing were unimpressed or even turned off by this movie.

One noted scribe who knows a thing or two about boxing, let alone writing and screenwriting, is CyberBoxingZone.com's Lucius Shepard. "Pick a boxing cliche," wrote Shepard in a review published by ElectricStory.com. "The grizzled trainer, the mutilated and/or impaired fighter, the plucky young fighter from the wrong side of the tracks, the implacable, indomitable Ivan Drago-like nemesis, Baby has them all, bleeding the stuff of a hundred awful boxing movies into a Force Five tearjerker that, though it's not without its virtues, is exactly the sort of pretentious garbage that acts like Viagra on the members of the Academy."

In a conversation with the CBZ, Shepard mentioned that when writing a sports script, the writer shouldn't get too technical but the story should be authentic. "Slapshot was a perfect hockey movie," said Shepard. "Though it was a comedy, it was a story that fit into a sport of hockey. The locker-room scenes in Slapshot were very much what hockey, particularly in the minor leagues, is all about."

(I happen to know minor-league-hockey goon Chad Wagner, who last week was banned for life from the United Hockey League for pulling an opposing coach off the bench. I'm convinced he is Ugee Ogilthorpe, at least one of the many.)

Before I continue, I'd be remiss if I didn't write SPOILER ALERT. This, according to review etiquette, means read no more if you don't want to know the outcome of the movie -- or you can interpret this warning as "Continue reading and save your money."

As you may have read or seen, Eastwood plays trainer Frankie Dunn, while Hilary Swank plays boxer Maggie who, despite being exceptionally beautiful, decides to use boxing as a way to advance economically and as a way of feeling special in the redneck world that Hollywood paints these days. Frankie, after originally refusing to acknowledge Maggie's enthusiasm and downtrodden plight, decides to go against his ways of not coaching only girlies and takes her under his wing.

One of these reasons also has to do with the fact that Frankie hasn't spoken to his daughter in years, and the letters he writes to his estranged daughter, which is his own way of finding himself, are always returned. We also learn that Maggie's father passed away when she was young, and it's clear that this unlikely partnership fills obvious gaps. Both for the first time are discovering and embrace the concept of family while they build Maggie into a fighting machine. As Shepard observes, "That they fill a certain need in each other's lives is all-too-frequently highlighted by the script, just in case we didn't get it, by lines such as 'You remind me a lot of my daddy.' "

Maggie eventually becomes an exciting world-class boxer through some unforgettable fight scenes until she is paralyzed from the neck down by an illegal punch in her title match against Lucia Rijker's character, Billie "The Blue Bear." From this bizarre fight scene until the closer, where Dunn puts her to eternal rest, the remainder of the film shows the quandary of her no longer wanting to fight to keep alive with her condition while Dunn refuses to give up on her.

As Shepard says, "Almost everything in the movie was a shameless grab for audience sympathy." But its pivotal attempted seize is nothing short of disgraceful. When you watch a boxing movie, it's sometimes difficult to dismiss what Hollywood uses to give it some flare. The utter violence in Rocky or Raging Bull could lead one to think, "No one could take that kind of punishment." Then again, the wars between Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward weren't all that different, in terms of a human's capacity to absorb physical punishment.

That kind of mockery is forgivable and fun to watch for moviegoers. Even the young men that were used for the gym scenes in Baby were tolerable. So what if it didn't look as though any of them had ever actually hit a heavy bag in their lives? Maybe it was hard to find a handful of local boxers to be stand-ins. Heck, Hilary Swank actually looked better than all of them at everything she was doing, whether it was hitting the speed bag or jumping rope. But what went on in the boxing scenes, in terms of some of the mechanics, which ultimately set up its shocking climax, is what many have a problem with.

Early in Maggie's career, it's clear that she's becoming a knockout artist. But Frankie does something unusual after Maggie knocks out her opponents: He puts the ring stool into the ring, in her corner, as though it's the end of a round. She immediately walks toward her corner and sits on the stool. I kept wondering why this was happening. After a fight, a stool is usually brought in for a knockout victim. But when a fight is over, particularly for the winner, there is no stool. Why would a stool be brought into the ring after a fight for the winner? Maybe if he or she had gone 14 hard rounds in Manila under sweltering hot lights and needed to sit down from exhaustion. But Maggie was knocking everyone out in the first round.

Anyway, let me get to her title match with Billie "The Blue Bear." As we would find out, Billie "The Blue Bear," who is played by the G.O.A.T. of women's boxing, Lucia Rijker, lives up to her reputation for dirty tactics, doing everything except kick and bite in this one. Why they even used Rijker for this character is anyone's guess. In the first round, Maggie has her way with Billie until a blatant elbow to the face by Billie drops her. At the end of the round, the referee warns Billie's corner that he'll take a point away if she continues to foul. That comment almost made the film look like a slapstick comedy.

In the second round, the referee shows he's a man or his word when he deducts a point from a foul that left Maggie on all fours. While the referee is deducting a point, Billie decides to hammer Maggie with a right cross for good measure. What? Why was this written into the script? That kind of cheap shot would have resulted in a disqualification in a boxing scene in a Naked Gun movie. Believe it or not, a second point wasn't taken away for the infraction.

Between rounds Frankie tells his battered fighter to punch Billie in the ass and "get her right in the sciatic nerve." I'll say that again: Frankie told her to punch Billie in the ass. Like a good student, Maggie gives it the ol' college try when she lands a few blatant punches to Billie's ass, which ultimately set her up for the near knockout. After administering a real ass whipping to Billie's front, the bell saves her. (During this scene it also appears that the referee stopped the fight, because he was waving his arms, which is usually the sign that the fight is over.)

I found this to be terribly confusing, because at the same time, Frankie throws the stool into the ring as if the fight was stopped, but as we found out, it was the end of the round. The smiles on the faces of Maggie and Frankie were a sign that they were in better shape for round four, but Lucia's character had other ideas. Billie outdoes herself and possibly even James Butler when she hammers an unprotected Maggie from the side as she is walking into her corner. Maggie falls toward her corner and breaks her neck over the stool.

If the movie's objective was to make the viewer feel as miserable as possible, the movie throws another follow-up rabbit shot. Now, I'm not suggesting losing a fight or losing in general for that matter could compare to a life altering injury, but later in the movie, while Maggie is bedridden and attached to a respirator, we find out that she actually lost her fight with "Blue Bear." In the past few years we've seen such outrageous travesties as Tyson's ear biting spree, Oliver McCall suffering a nervous breakdown in the ring, and James Butler sucker-punching Richard Grant after losing to him via decision. But in all of these headline embarrassments, the proper if not somewhat of a suitable punishment or fine was ruled. In Tyson's case, he was suspended from boxing for a year and had his purse withheld. McCall saw his purse withheld and was soon readmitted to a mental facility. Butler was immediately hauled off in cuffs and was convicted of a felony, while also being suspended from the sport upon his release from prison.

We are led to believe that because Maggie literally ended up on her back at the end of the night that she lost. How? By TKO? I mean, hey, I guess she couldn't continue. The referee and clearly the audience or broadcast crew saw what happened. That's like having an umpire from The Natural reverse Roy Hobbs' walk-off homerun because the lights that hung over right field were considered foul territory. Though boxing is known for some of its shameful history, something like this, especially in this day and age and in this country, would not and could not happen.

There are some states that rule that a fighter cannot win by a foul, however, a loss for Maggie would have been the last ruling on earth. More importantly, we were left to assume that no repercussions were in order for Billie, that she was absolved from any wrongdoing despite leaving Maggie paralyzed. The movie gave the viewer the idea that this sort of thing happens in boxing all the time. After all, most casual fans know that Larry Merchant always says: "Boxing is the theater of the unexpected"

What happens in this movie was truly unexpected but downright unbelievable. As Shepard mentioned to me over the phone: "[Watching Million Dollar Baby] was like watching a science-fiction movie in which an astronaut in outer space removes his helmet for a moment to take a deep breath."

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